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Greasy Pole: Disturbance? In Westminster?

Greasy Pole

‘Before we go over to our outside broadcasting team,’ says the TV news presenter, ‘a warning: their report includes scenes which some viewers may find disturbing’. Cut to a film of a ditch in some famished village overflowing with massacred corpses, to a motorway fast lane with oozing victims of mangled vehicles, to some dazed and famished animals waiting to be transported to the abattoir. But the news can also be disturbing in a rather different way and with its own style of injury and anger. On 13 January an inquest into the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse at the King Edward VII Hospital in London who had taken the hoax telephone call from Australia about the admission of pregnant Kate Middleton for morning sickness, ruled that she had committed suicide. A few days before, on a visit to the Houses of Parliament, the family's bewildered grief was all too apparent to need the intervention before the cameras of Labour MP Keith Vaz, gripping his arms around them after ensuring that it was all being recorded for the TV news. Was the sight of Vaz so determinedly exploiting the family's grief ‘disturbing’? Well not on the same scale as those other incidents but it certainly aroused some strong reactions. ‘What the hell has this got to do with Keith Vaz?’ demanded Richard Littlejohn (himself not unaccustomed to attention-seeking). ‘A creepy, oily politician who makes my skin crawl whenever I listen to him,’ was one posted comment: ‘A lawyer with a big mouth and a crooked MP with crooked mates’ was another.

Survivor

It is possible that a clutch of viewers assumed Vaz is the family's MP and was simply doing his duty towards them. But this is not so: he sits for Leicester East and the family live in Bristol, which means they are represented by the Tory, Charlotte Leslie – who, compared to Vaz, was markedly invisible in the matter. Then there is the fact that Vaz has some experience of inserting himself into prominent positions; for example at a royal reception in Buckingham Palace in December 1988, when he was just a year into his time in the Commons, his fellow Labour MP Chris Mullin observed that he ‘managed , in a crowded field, to inveigle himself into The Presence. HM, radiant in lime green, worked the crowd...for an hour and a half’. More recently, a big party to mark his 25 years as an MP was attended by Tony Blair, Ed Miliband, Theresa May. For he is very much a survivor - the longest-serving Asian MP, which should give him some influence where it is likely to count. Except that there have been episodes in his parliamentary record which have needed all his skills to avoid involving him in some terminal scandal.

Solicitor

Vaz came to England when he was nine; he went on to Cambridge and qualified as a solicitor, working mainly for local authorities. After becoming an MP he held a succession of minor jobs, including PPS for the Attorney General and Minister for Europe and the Commonwealth. His career has had an unusually high incidence of allegations about his conduct in office, such as ballot-rigging and receiving money in return for favours, some of which have been upheld and others which have been successfully obscured in clouds of verbiage and self-justification. In February 2000 Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Elizabeth Filkin, whose job was as gruesome as its title, investigated a number of allegations that Vaz had failed to declare, as he should have done, the receipt of several thousands of pounds from another solicitor, Sarosh Zaiwalla, whose former partner had made the original complaint. In the end Vaz was censured for just one matter, of receiving two payments of £4,500 although Filkin complained that the Honourable Member had improperly obstructed the full scope of her enquiries.

Hinduja

Perhaps the most serious of these matters, as it involved a senior minister, was in January 2001 when the Commons were informed that Vaz and others had intervened in the application for British citizenship of the Hinduja brothers. From a tangle of misinformation and collusion it emerged that the Hindujas had paid Vaz's wife for ‘legal advice on immigration issues.’ Although Vaz was not required to declare these payments, Filkin was moved to comment that ‘It is clear to me there has been deliberate collusion over many months between Mr Vaz and his wife to conceal this fact and to prevent me from obtaining accurate information about his possible financial relationship with the Hinduja family.’ As a result, in June 2001 he was ousted as Minister for Europe. One rumour had it that he was called to see Tony Blair, who told him he was doing a brilliant job but as he happily went to leave he was informed by a member of the Downing Street office that he had in fact been sacked. In 2002 he was suspended from the House of Commons for one month after the Committee of Standards and Privileges ruled that he had ‘committed serious breaches of the Code of Conduct and showed contempt for the House.’ Last October the Tory MP Andrew Bridgen (who is himself what is called ‘known to the police’) complained to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner after a Scotland Yard enquiry found evidence that some money paid into Vaz's bank accounts was ‘of a suspicious nature.’

Vaz was rated by Chris Mullin as ‘a sleek wheeler-dealer. He has the attention span of a gnat and a tendency to fantasise.’ More widely among the legislators of Westminster, he is known as ‘Keith Vazeline.’ It is clear that he will continue to need all his talents for survival. But if he were to go under again, what reason is there to believe that any replacement will be noticeably different? These people – Vaz, Bridgen and the like – are typical of those who from the green benches fashion the laws and regulations which impel us to behave in accordance with the demands of this society of class repression. There is, overwhelmingly, reason for us to be ‘disturbed’ by this, to the effect that we organise to bring it to an end.